1982...
TGS SPECIAL REPORT: SHAKE DOWN THE THUNDER...AGAIN
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


“Follow the money.”

So said the “Deep Throat” character (eventually discovered to be FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt) played by Hal Holbrook in the classic movie All The President’s Men, based upon the Bob Woodward-Carl Bernstein book of the same name.

But “Deep Throat” might also have been referring to college sports four decades hence.

Almost two-and-a-half years ago, we penned a piece for TGS website entitled The Big 64. In it, we suggested that the college sports landscape was going to be entering a period of change unlike any it had ever experienced. We warned of indiscriminate conference-jumping, and a future point in which four distinct football “super conferences” likely consisting of 16 schools each (hence “The Big 64”) would emerge and forever alter the structure of college sports as we once knew it.

Well, since that story first appeared, nothing has changed our mind. Wheeling and dealing between conferences and schools commenced soon thereafter and has continued almost unabated since. Every major conference has undergone change to its membership in the last few years, an almost unheard of development in the annals of college sport. In the process, we are also witnessing the slow death of at least one long-established league (the WAC), as the new order, driven by football and TV revenue, permanently changes the composition of college athletics.

The biggest domino to fall, however, was always going to be Notre Dame. Which, as we predicted in our many editorial pieces from the past year, would likely be into the Atlantic Coast Conference, which we knew would gladly accept the Fighting Irish on Notre Dame’s terms. Sources told us a while ago that the main attraction of the ACC to the Fighting Irish was that the loop, unlike the Big Ten, would allow the South Bend school to keep its own football TV deal with NBC. (Our sources also informed us that the ACC would offer a similar to deal to Texas and its new Longhorn Network if the Horns wanted to shift leagues, too.)

So, when Notre Dame finally enlisted with the ACC last week while retaining its football “independence” (indeed, it’s more of an “affiliation” on the gridiron side, with full membership in other sports), we were hardly surprised at developments.

We remain perplexed, however, at how Notre Dame can continue to dictate extremely favorable terms to the college sports establishment, especially when considering that the allure of the Fighting Irish as a national brand has been on the wane. In fact, it’s been nearly a quarter-century since Notre Dame’s last football national title in 1988, and almost 20 years since the Irish were a serious national title contender during the later days of the Lou Holtz regime. Almost an entire generation has grown up without knowing Notre Dame as a national football power (although a quick 3-0 start has Domers dreaming again this year).

Fortunately for the Irish, however, they apparently retain enough cache’ with TV execs (most of whom are old enough to recall the ND glory years) to make those sorts and others continue to jump through the proverbial hoops. At the same time, college sport has become such a dizzying money-spinner that network movers-and-shakers have become involved in bidding wars that resemble the old arms race. For the moment, it seems as if there is no ceiling on the amount of TV dollars the big-time football schools can reap. And whether it’s true or not, Notre Dame (at least in the eyes of most TV and college conference execs) retains enough clout to command preferential treatment.

What we find irksome, however, are the inconsistencies not only in some of the modern-day practices employed at Notre Dame, but also within the national sports media that continue to stereotype certain athletic institutions (such as Fighting Irish football) as if we were still in the 1960s. Had the national media been paying attention, it might have noted some fascinating recent storylines in South Bend in which countless Domers have become angered to the point of withholding their usual donations due to a myriad of new school policies which are hardly consistent with, and often contradict, the Catholic Church’s Magisterium teachings which supposedly form the core of the school’s mission. When space and time permit we might delve into some of those topics further.

We don’t begrudge Notre Dame’s many TV money grabs over the decades, although we have to wonder how consistent all of that is within the progressive narrative now embraced by the school and how it fits within the parallel new-age political/social climate that frowns upon such excesses and compensation. And within a national sports media that is often all too anxious to toe the politically-correct line, but seems to have no issue with the Fighting Irish operating within its own sphere while employing land-baron-like, financial strong-arm tactics unavailable to others.

We find it paradoxical that Notre Dame can be so unashamedly capitalistic when it comes to negotiating its sports TV deals, but has been tacking in a far-opposite philosophical direction in school policy regarding the social, cultural, and political issues of the day.

Yet, Notre Dame only operates in its own sphere because the collective of college sport allows it to do so. To continue to grant the Irish a wide berth for what appears to be nothing more than tradition’s sake hardly fits within the larger narrative of current times.

Meanwhile, on the sporting side, we can understand why Notre Dame would be desirous of this best-of-all-worlds scenario it has cobbled for itself with the ACC. While just short of full football membership, the new deal promises five games per season vs. foes in the ACC, which now encompasses an expansive region including some old Fighting Irish haunts in the East (Boston, Pittsburgh, and to some degree the Big Apple with “New York’s college team” Syracuse, plus the mid-Atlantic, where future games vs. Maryland, Virginia, and Virginia Tech could be contested in one of the NFL stadiums in the Baltimore-Washington corridor). Not to mention greater exposure and recruiting benefits in the fertile Tidewater, Carolinas, Florida, and Georgia regions, all areas of explosive growth (much unlike Notre Dame’s native Midwest). The ACC label is also a feather in the cap for basketball and other sports, especially as the Irish affiliation with the Big East was becoming less and less palatable with the reconfiguration of that alignment.

We disagree, however, with those who are suggesting that Notre Dame’s future link-up with the ACC effectively ends the recent spate of conference movement. With the ever-increasing TV dollars, leagues are able to renegotiate their network deals whenever there is a change in the composition of their loops; look for the ACC to soon re-do its recent TV deal, which came under fire from some league members. And when those potential dollars are greater than the cost of splitting revenues further, conferences are unlikely to stand still and will continue to look to expand. Which is why we are reluctant to accept ACC Commissioner John Swofford at his word that his league isn’t thinking about growing further anytime soon. Although by enlisting the Irish and upping the exit fees for conference members to a hefty $50 million, entities such as Florida State (which has been rumored to be on the move) and perhaps Miami and Clemsion are much more likely to stay put in the ACC until further notice.

We foresee another potential development in coming years, as other “brand” names in college sport might decide that conference affiliation isn’t worth it if they, too, can make Notre Dame-like deals for themselves. While that might appear unlikely at the moment, once one of the “big boys” decides to try it, watch out for the repercussions and a new domino effect sometime in the future.

In fact, it’s almost pre-ordained. As always, just follow the money.


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